Conor Kelly from Clane is Malawi programme manager with Trócaire
Clane man Conor Kelly, who works as Kildare charity Trócaire's programme manager for Malawi, writes about the difficulties faced by poor countries in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic
These are difficult times for everyone. As Covid-19 spreads around the world and the virus crosses borders, there are real concerns as it rapidly spreads to countries who lack even the most basic resources to fight this crisis.
Covid-19 is now present in over 50 countries in Africa, including some – Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – that are amongst the poorest places on Earth.
Poor countries are vulnerable at multiple levels – there may not be a functioning state to warn people how to protect themselves; many do not have the systems to detect the virus; most do not have a functioning health service to respond to a mass outbreak of illness.
Poverty also makes individuals more vulnerable. In my role as Trócaire’s programme manager for Malwai, I have visited communities devastated by drought where families may only be eating once a day. These people may have HIV or be malnourished; their immune system is going to be compromised.
We are told how hand washing is one of the best protections against Covid-19, yet three quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s 645 million people don’t have the facilities at home to wash their hands with soap and water.
There are currently Coronavirus cases in 16 of the countries where Trócaire support people. Trying to contain the spread of the virus in these countries is going to be a mammoth task for our teams in the weeks and months ahead.
In Africa, thousands of cases have been reported in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Sudan where Trócaire has ongoing programmes. Malawi is bracing itself for an imminent outbreak. While there are thousands of confirmed cases across the continent, the real number is likely to be far higher than official figures as testing is not available in most countries.
These countries do not have the medical facilities or infrastructure to cope with a pandemic. In Malawi, there are only 20 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds for a population of 19 million. To put that in perspective, it roughly equates to one ICU bed per million; Italy, which has been devastated by Covid-19 despite having a modern, developed health system, has 125 ICU beds per million.
Trócaire is currently preparing immediate Covid-19 responses in seven countries. We have experience combatting disease outbreaks and we can help to tackle this pandemic.
During the ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014-15, our teams in Sierra Leone delivered vital services to affected communities, helping to save thousands of lives. Today, we continue to counter the spread of ebola in DR Congo, which had its last new case of ebola a few weeks ago. We are winning the fight against ebola and we can win this new fight against Covid-19.
A lot of what we do to counter these outbreaks is similar to what we’re now seeing in Ireland – it is about providing hygiene and encouraging a change in social norms. In DR Congo, that means helping people to understand what the virus is and how to prevent its spread. We mobilise communities to carry out hygiene promotion activities and to support families forced into quarantine.
What makes COVID-19 different to other response work is that it is not isolated to one region or country. When ebola struck West Africa, the world could mobilise in response. With the coronavirus now spreading across Africa – and at a time when Europe and America are struggling to contain their own crises – African countries have to rely only on their own scarce resources.
Agencies such as Trócaire will respond to the coronavirus crisis while also trying to maintain other life-saving programmes.
The virus also presents challenges to our work in Ireland. Organisations around Ireland are trying to deal with this risk in a sensible and appropriate way. Trócaire is no different. The vast majority of our staff, who are usually based in our Maynooth headquarters, are working from home and our local centres in Ireland are closed.
We have also cancelled all events planned around our annual Lenten campaign. Our school talks, Mass talks and exhibitions will not go ahead, which will impact our crucial fundraising, but the most important thing today is stopping the spread of this virus and protecting each other.
While face-to-face public outreach activities are cancelled, the appeal continues. People can donate at trocaire.org and can continue to fill their Trócaire boxes with the intention of returning them at some stage in the future. We know not everyone is in a position to support this work right now, but, if you can, please consider supporting our Lent appeal.
Your support means we can provide hygiene kits, testing kits, information campaigns and other support to vulnerable communities affected by COVID-19.
Conor Kelly is from Clane and works as Trócaire’s Programme Manager for Malawi. You can support Trócaire’s work and Lenten campaign at trocaire.org/donate or phone 1850 408 408.